This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

September 1, 2005 - islamic science

There is a certain kind of tree that is sometimes attacked by a nasty insect. When this happens, the tree sends out a powerful scent, very similar to a pheromone, that is attractive to another bug, the natural enemy of the first.

If you didn't have the proper instruments to detect all this, you might say, "The spirit of the tree called to the spirit of the savior insects."

And you would be right. While this is not exactly detailed, it is nonetheless accurate. It tells what happens, maybe even why. But it doesn't tell how.

How is pretty darn interesting.

This nicely captures the tension between science and religion. Science is all about how.

Which leads me to mention a book I found on our library shelves, and highly recommend. It's called "What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East," by Bernard Lewis.

Back during what the Christian world now calls "the Dark Ages," the Muslim civilization was in full flower. It had captured Jerusalem. It had, in fact, expanded as far west as Spain, where the "Moors" were singularly tolerant of a large Jewish population.

But more impressive than its military accomplishments was the Muslim world's fascination with science. Muslims were the pre-eminent mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, chemists, metallurgists, physicians, physicists and engineers of the age.

Muslims were poised, perhaps as early as a century before Columbus, to "discover" what would eventually be known as the Americas.

That didn't happen. What went wrong?

In brief, or so I understand Lewis' argument, Islamic leaders, combining both political and religious authority, decided that all this pursuit of knowledge was a great distraction from the purity of Islam.

No longer was science to be an act of reverence, a discovery of Allah's methods, a thrilling examination of an endlessly creative natural universe, the rapt and active witnessing of God in action.

It was a sin.

Flash forward a century, two, half a millennium, all the way to today. And what happened to the Muslim world?

According to Lewis, it declined, collapsing politically, devolving in tolerance, becoming increasingly insular and irrelevant in the realms of both science and commerce. Where once it was a beacon of light to a dark world, it now, too often, finds itself mired in tribal feudalism and violence.

Moreover, again according to Lewis, much of the Arab Muslim community feels a profound sense of humiliation, a sense of its own decline and cultural inferiority, a sense that history betrayed it.

This sociological and historical analysis says nothing, of course, about Mohammad and his teachings. But it might say quite a lot about that tension between religion and science.

Today, in our own times, in this very country, we are witnessing another swelling concentration of religious and political power. Are we, too, seeing a turning away from science, a rejection of modernity?

Consider the pronouncements from the occupant of the highest elected office in our nation concerning public education and "intelligent design." Consider the restrictions on research involving stem cells.

Then consider what history tells us about the suppression of science.

We can believe that science -- the attempt to comprehend how things work -- is itself a celebration of spirit.

Or we can believe it is the exercise of reason alone, steadily improving our lives, eliminating both disease and inconvenience.

Or we can believe that the trees are mute, that the locusts that come, or don't come, are God's incomprehensible will, and that it is best, as a faith, as a nation, as a people ... to diminish.

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